Last Moments and First Steps
For the last few months, I’ve been talking a lot about that line between being prepared for your own death verses dwelling too much on it (or conversely – ignoring it completely). Today I want to talk about losing someone else instead. Specifically, what needs to happen first when someone has just died – especially if their passing was not anticipated.
Recently, I came across a blog post by my friend Katherine about finding her grandmother unexpectedly passed away, and with her permission, I’m sharing some of her story with you here.
I stopped along the way to my grandma’s assisted living facility to pick up hot chocolate for us to share. At the entrance of the building, I greeted the woman at the front desk and took the elevator to her room. The door was slightly cracked, so I pushed it open – and I felt the normal hot and humid climate of her room, which without fail caused me to doze off during every visit. She was stretched out on the couch and appeared to be asleep. I tiptoed to not wake her too suddenly. She didn’t respond to my voice. I gently touched her arm and face – my mind reaching to grasp the notion of what I was seeing, of what was happening. I put my fingers on her neck, attempting to take her pulse. Although she was warm to the touch, her arm already had a certain stiffness to it and I noted a blueish-purple color on her finger nails. As I began to understand what was happening, my reaction was calm. No other reaction seemed possible while standing over her – her eyes closed and her lips in a soft smile. I was there to bear witness to her process of death and to be present in those moments. No need for hurried action crept into my mind.
So what now? What happens when you suddenly find yourself in charge of those first steps after someone has passed. What do you do? Who do you call? The answers to those questions, and the experience itself, will be different depending on if you were anticipating the person’s passing. In a hospital situation, or even in a home setting overseen by hospice caregivers, there will be someone to guide you. If however, you find yourself dealing with the unexpected, the very simple answer is to call 9-1-1. Responders will come out and help you through the first steps. After your loved one has been examined, a time of death has been declared, and the police have determined that it is not a crime scene, you will call a funeral home to come and transport your loved one. Here’s Katherine again about what those first steps were like in her experience:
First, EMTs arrived to pronounce her dead, followed by police officers to record reports of what happened. Meanwhile, the facility’s staff milled around telling me how much they enjoyed my grandmother and how they were surprised by my calmness. Their faces expressed that look – the one where people expect you to panic and sink to the floor sobbing at any moment... I made phone calls to family. I oscillated between sitting on a chair next to her body (which was still on the couch) and her bedroom… For some reason, it felt inappropriate to discuss what was occurring with her body in the room, perhaps since it seemed too early to really process what had happened, while it was still happening. So, I closed the door to her bedroom, as if to not let her hear what I was talking about on the phone. I felt like I needed to keep the room as quiet and peaceful as possible. After a few hours of silence, only interrupted by questions from police officers, the funeral home arrived to move her. I felt at once grateful that a system exists when someone dies, that you fall into. There is a process and people explain what is going to happen, which always feels comforting…
At this point, I can’t speak for what happens with other funeral homes, but if you’ve called our funeral home, day or night, someone from our staff and very likely from our family, will take your call. We’ll ask you for vital information (e.g. birthday) to begin the death certification process, and practical questions such as if your loved one is in a room upstairs or down or if there are narrow hallways, so that we will know what specialized equipment to send to facilitate a prompt and courteous experience. Our transport team will arrive, in most cases led by Joe McGlynn (who is one of the most genuinely kind people I have had the privilege to work with). They’ll explain what they need to do and ask permission before they start. They will support you and guide you and be careful not to rush you. They may laugh with you or cry with you or even pray with you.
The thing is, no matter how wonderful the nurses are, or the first responders are, or the final transport team is, no one can take the pain from your experience, but my hope is that opening up the discussion and sharing what to expect might ease the fear. This month and every month, I want to put a human face on the funeral industry for you and let you see a little bit of what I see. If there is something in particular you would like to hear more about, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Erin Darst Hein is the daughter of John Darst of Darst Funeral Home. She lives in Kingwood with her husband Evan and their 3 children Jack (5), Caroline (2), and Ian (6 months).
Katherine Conway lives in Washington DC. She writes and collects stories about grief and healing on her blog helpingfriendsgrieve.wordpress.com
You can reach Darst Funeral Home in your time of need 24 hours a day, 365 days a year at 281-312-5656.
Part 1: Earliest Memories
Part 2: Holidays on a cemetery
Part 3: This Little Light of Mine
Part 4: Genealogy
Part 5: The Man Behind The Magic
Part 6: No Cancer But a Dose of Perpective
Part 7: A Year Full of Yes
Part 8: Last Moments and First Steps
Part 9: Facing Fathers Day Without Your Father
Part 10: When Children Grieve
Part 11: From Velvet to Violets: Shedding New Light on Saying Goodbye
Part 12: If it Won't Open, It's Not Your Door
Part 13: Love, After All
Part 14: New Beginnings
Part 15: Not Goodbye, Just Goodnight
Part 16: Holding Space for Dying
Part 17: Grieving and Pets: A Family Affair